The Break by Katherena Vermette

Any  Canadian Settler serious about reconciliation needs to read The Break. It is not easy. It is not all-encompassing. But it is a bead in the belt of education we must do.

The Break shows us how trauma travels through generations, and demonstrates why indigenous lives are still affected by past injustices: residential schools, the sixties scoop, and other systemic atrocities suffered at the hands of the Canadian Government. Directly or indirectly, every character is cramped and constrained by that systemic racism. It will take as much work to undo these crimes as it took to commit them in the first place, and that work has not been done.

kent-monkman-the-scream

(“The Scream” by Kent Monkman)

The Break takes place in Winnipeg’s North End, a place author Katherena Vermette knows well. She lives there. The story centres on the assault of an indigenous girl – the events that lead to it and the investigation and recovery of all those touched by the incident (the victim, the perpetrator, the police, the victim’s friends and family and aunties and cousins and Kookum). The narrative perspective is passed between all of these people, and we as readers sympathize with each of their stories – even the criminals. Every character is a victim of “the system,” of colonialism, but each deals with the trauma in different ways. Some turn to crime, some to drugs or alcohol, some become bad parents because trauma has removed their emotional capacity to love, but some are resilient, stable, and self-assured. What do you expect of a child born of rape? What do you expect of her mother? Are police agents of good, or are they racist? Or perhaps simply ignorant?

Vermette pulls back the hard shell of each character’s public self, revealing the conflict, emotion, uncertainty and accidents within all of us. She holds love under a magnifying glass and shows us what great lessons, comfort and help can come through seemingly mundane interactions – bringing coffee to the hospital room even though no one will drink it, singing familiar songs even though no one appears to be listening, cooking and sharing meals, going for a drive. She shows us how healing family, tradition and culture can be to all of us, and through this shows what was attacked when Canada banned the potluck and tore families apart.

The best way to reconcile mistrust is to get to know the other side. The best way to do that is through personal relationships, but not all of us can make friends with a native, or be welcomed to indigenous ceremonies. That is where literature helps; it takes us into private homes, through the curtain of misunderstanding, to a safe place where we colonizers can begin to understand.

 

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